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February 9, 2024

Flexing bipartisan bona fides, Chris Murphy hopeful despite defeat

YEHYUN KIM / CT MIRROR Sen. Chris Murphy stands before an interview at a break at the National Safer Communities Summit that he hosted at the University of Hartford on Friday, June 16, 2023.

When Congress considered bipartisan gun reforms after a series of mass shootings in 2022, Chris Murphy unsurprisingly played a leading role in negotiations, given his years of working on the issue since Sandy Hook.

But as new bipartisan talks ramped up last fall, the U.S. senator from Connecticut took on a more uncharacteristic post. He became the lead negotiator for Democrats on immigration policy, even though his experience didn’t tick all the boxes.

“I know, at some level, I was not a natural person to be in the room. I don’t have a history of working at a high level on this issue. I don’t come from a border state,” Murphy said in an interview, but added, “I think my colleagues do look at me as somebody who can get things done.”

Murphy has served in the Senate since 2013, but over the past two years, he has become a more prominent fixture in bipartisan negotiations — both in areas where he has long championed the issue and others where he is more of a newcomer. He has had mixed success so far.

One of his first successful negotiations came in 2022 on gun reform. For a decade prior to that, Murphy had been pushing for federal policy, to no avail, in the wake of a gunman killing 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Congress largely resisted passing any gun control measures even after some bipartisan attempts. But the door opened after mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas.

The negotiations culminated in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which made modest changes to gun laws. Top priorities like universal background checks and a federal assault weapons ban did not make it into the final deal, but the bill, among other things, strengthened background checks for those under 21 and incentivized states to adopt “red flag” laws.

Six months later, Murphy was one of more than a dozen senators to work on a compromise bill reforming the centuries-old Electoral Count Act, aimed at preventing future interference in certifying election results and avoiding a repeat of the Jan. 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol. The measure ended up in the year-end government funding package that Congress passed at the end of 2022.

“I’m very humbled to be one of a handful of people in the Senate who can get into these rooms and get these deals done and to be trusted by both sides of the aisle, and I don’t plan on stopping being a bridge builder just because one negotiation doesn’t find its way to completion,” he said.

Murphy was angry and stunned when he came to the Senate floor on Tuesday. He claimed Republicans would rather have chaos than pass the border bill they asked for in exchange for President Joe Biden’s national security bill with aid for Ukraine, Israel and humanitarian efforts in Gaza. He struck a frustrated tone reminiscent of when he asked his colleagues, “What are we doing?” after the Uvalde school shooting in 2022.

“This is unbelievable. Like, I can’t believe this is happening. We were all here. This wasn’t a dream,” Murphy said. “They want to pretend they never asked for a bipartisan border bill. Because what they actually want is chaos. Because that’s what Donald Trump says he wants. What the hell just happened?”

But as the Senate was in the middle of a taking a vote that tanked his bill on Wednesday, Murphy seemed more measured as he processed the past few days.

The politics changed rapidly since the legislation was released. On Sunday afternoon, Murphy said there were 20 to 25 Republican senators who they thought were likely to get on board. But by the next day, only four were expected to vote to advance it. And that was on top of some Democrats who vocally opposed it and wanted reforms like protections for individuals brought into the country illegally as children, or Dreamers.

With compromise comes concessions. Murphy did not get everything he wanted in the gun safety bill, nor did Democrats in the border bill — such as pathways to citizenship for Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants.

That has led to criticisms, including from some advocates in Connecticut, of sacrificing core priorities of the party in the name of achieving bipartisanship and losing leverage in negotiations. While Republicans conditioned security aid on border fixes, critics argued Democrats should not have gone along with considering policy changes that affect migrants seeking refuge in order to get money for foreign wars.

“Why did Democratic leadership have to respond to Republican demands to include immigration policy in this funding bill that is clearly about getting funding to Ukraine and Israel?” Constanza Segovia, a leader organizer with Hartford Deportation Defense, said in a recent interview.

“There are a lot of members of Congress who think their job is to just argue their case and stay on the sidelines. I don’t think that’s my job,” Murphy said. “It’s ultimately up to the voters of Connecticut as to whether they want somebody in sort of my mold or whether they want somebody who, you know, looks like [Texas Sen.] Ted Cruz.”

Despite the whiplash, Murphy said he does not have regrets for engaging on the issue with U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz. Senate leadership was also heavily involved, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his team. He ended up voting against the bill on Wednesday.

While both are politically thorny issues, Murphy repeatedly said in the lead-up to the deal that negotiating on guns was much easier than on immigration. He attributed that to the more complicated nature of changing immigration law. Murphy is hopeful they can eventually reopen talks but acknowledged it is unlikely to happen in the near term.

“I think it’s pretty clear that, for the foreseeable future, we are not going to be able to compromise with Republicans on the issue of immigration. And I think it is also a sign that you really are never negotiating with anybody except for Donald Trump for the time being,” Murphy said.

“That was not the case in 2022,” he added. “Donald Trump didn’t support the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, but he didn’t have veto power at that time in the Republican conference.”

The border bill would have required the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to prohibit entry into the U.S. if encounters at the border reached a certain level, raised the standard of “credible fear of persecution” when claiming asylum, limited presidential parole authority, issued more work permits and visas and provided legal counsel for unaccompanied minors under 13 during removal proceedings.

One of Murphy’s GOP opponents, Beacon Falls First Selectman Gerry Smith, said he opposed the bipartisan border bill after announcing his run for the Senate seat on Tuesday. Smith and two other Republicans are hoping to unseat Murphy, who is running for a third term in November. Republicans in Connecticut have not won a Senate seat since 1982.

Murphy, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, started off 2023 by traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border.

He said it was on that trip where he struck up a friendship with Lankford. Months before Biden asked Congress to pass his foreign security package, Murphy said he and Lankford were “quietly” exchanging ideas on immigration reforms. And with Sinema, he had already worked with her on the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

“When it became clear that there needed to be a group to try to work out some border changes in order to package together with Ukraine aid, it just was pretty easy for the three of us to get working together,” he said. “And very quickly thereafter, both Sen. McConnell and Sen. Schumer blessed our efforts, and we were off and running.”

In 2013, a group of senators known as the “Gang of Eight” worked on a bipartisan immigration proposal that got traction and passed in the Senate, but it stalled when it never got a vote in the House. Six of the eight members are still serving, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. That bill included a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants.

The recent group of negotiators took a lot of heat for being insular among the three of them and for not revealing the scope or many details of the bill to reporters or most lawmakers beforehand. The group was initially bigger, with a few other Democratic and Republican senators, but then downsized to the trio by late fall.

Lawmakers in both chambers voiced frustrations that more border-state members were not involved other than Sinema as well as no Latino senators negotiating in the room. Two Latino senators — Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J. — voted against the security legislation that included the border provisions. Padilla argued the bill would have been “a new version of a failed Trump-era immigration policy that will cause more chaos at the border, not less.”

“We would have loved to see legislators who have been experts on this issue and engaging with this issue for decades at the table so that they can have more nuanced, detailed conversations,” Segovia of Hartford Deportation Defense said. She was one of the advocates in Connecticut frustrated by the directions of the talks and disappointed that it did not include reforms for immigrants who are already in the U.S.

When asked if the talks should have been more inclusive and who made the decision to keep it to three, Murphy said it likely made it easier to come to a resolution.

“It’s a good question as to whether we should have had a bigger table,” Murphy said. “I think, on an issue this complicated, the bigger group might not have been able to get to a product. In retrospect, I don’t know that you can second-guess the decision, because we did achieve a product. The fault wasn’t in the negotiating room. We came to a bipartisan compromise.”

Those who have been with Murphy at the negotiating table, like U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., commend his work ethic.

Tillis said he got to know Murphy during a past work trip in Eastern Europe. Tillis worked most closely with the Connecticut senator during the negotiations of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, though his office had an initial role in the border talks. He described Murphy’s negotiating style as “very direct.”

“Even if he’s disagreeing or not willing to commit, that’s important to know versus wasting time and making assumptions because people are vague in their positions,” Tillis said about Murphy. “He’s very forthright. I enjoy working with him, and he’s got a great sense of humor.”

In the weeks leading up to the final deal, Tillis argued that Trump should not dictate what Congress passes, even if an issue is seen as a successful wedge issue for him in the November election. But this week, he came out in opposition to the bill, saying he would not vote for something a majority of his party did not support.

Tillis ultimately voted against the national security bill with the border measures. But during a procedural vote on Thursday, he supported the supplemental package after those specific provisions were stripped out.

While the border bill was torpedoed by his party, Tillis said he remained hopeful that both parties will be able to work together on future bipartisan negotiations.

“I think people need to be adults here and treat bipartisan efforts like the transactions they are. I can’t imagine why anyone should hold any ill will toward other members about some future opportunity,” Tillis said. “It certainly doesn’t affect my opinion on future opportunities to work together where it makes sense.”

Murphy also does not seem to be deterred by this experience, at least for now.

“I’ve gotten a couple of big compromises across the finish line. I’ve failed a couple of times, but I think I’m learning as I go,” he said. “I’m going to be proud to talk to people in Connecticut about my developing role as a negotiator and dealmaker in the Senate.”

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